Before this brunch, I had visited National Harbor only for drunken revelry at various festivals (read: Beer-Bourbon-BBQ, Crab, whatevs). I never ventured much beyond the parking lot and its white festival tents.
So when a Maryland-based friend suggested celebrating her birthday with a brunch there, it was time for a little research. National Harbor is its own colorful bubble of a community way out in the middle of nowhere. But where is the biggest and the best in this little sequestered Pleasantville?
The best could have been one of the new restaurants or cafes on a waterfront avenue (who lives here?). But it turns out the biggest is in the Gaylord Hotel—that glass monstrosity that stands as the landmark at National Harbor.
Part convention center, part Vegas hotel (sans slot machines), the Gaylord Hotel is one massive manufactured experience. The brunch in the Pienza Italian Market just tops it off. Situated in the atrium (an atrium so large it has fake houses inside, complete with trees), you brunch in a fake courtyard on fake cobblestone while serenaded by fake Italian musicians.
It worked for this particular birthday brunch because there were 15 of us. So our huge party didn’t seem so huge in the soaring glass bubble. Plus, a buffet allows everyone to get exactly what they want, and there’s no ridiculous check-splitting at the end. Everyone, you owe $36 plus tax and tip (juice and coffee is included). But hey, everyone, if you want a mimosa or bloody Mary … it’s $9 or more. Huge, huge fail.
The buffet gives a great first impression: five stations packed with Mediterranean and breakfast food. Seasonal fruits, pastries, seafood, pastas, meats, and more. We spent a good half-hour trolling the options and bumping into one another because we weren’t looking where we were going.
The dessert station was the most elaborate: tiny chocolate cakes, tiramisu, cookies, éclairs, mini cupcakes, you name it. You can construct quite a nice little plate of treats. Plus, as a special surprise, the staff sang happy birthday and presented a beautiful plate of desserts before our lovely birthday girl. (A sidenote from one of my Bitches: “The staff didn’t just sing her happy birthday, they played it in Italian – appropriate for our Italian friend – with a cello and an accordion, and then moved on and did it again a few tables later.”)
But (yes, here I go), while the food stations looked grande at first glance, they weren’t that imaginative when you get down to buffet-shoveling. First of all, I want more seafood. I’m in freaking National Harbor! Where are the mounds of crab legs, sushi, and oysters? There was a pile of shrimp, but that was boring. Even the salmon wasn’t the freshest. And as far as the bagel toppings go, who serves a whole array of bagels and puts out 1) crushed boiled egg, 2) lemon wedges, and 3) tomato dices. How do dices of tomatoes work on a bagel?
The pasta and side dishes (potatoes and greens) were loaded with salt and gravy. Everything was a bit over-cooked, but I suppose that’s what you get with heat-lamp buffets. The only half-creative dish that I was marginally excited about was the lobster hushpuppies. But even those disappointed, as they were bland and dry.
The breakfast foods were hidden away, but that was probably best. The bacon tasted like it had been sitting there for a full day, and the eggs were runny and cold. There were, however, made-to-order Belgium waffles and omelets. The waffle station was pretty top notch, with a really fluffy waffle and lots of toppings (want M&Ms and caramel on your waffles? Mmkay!). The omelet station was a win, though they didn’t offer mushrooms (an essential when scoping out omelet stations).
The Gaylord is really attempting to be Vegas over-the-top with this buffet but it just isn’t quite there. If you want to go Vegas, don’t go Vegas with me. Because Vegas has spoiled me.
The Bitches Say: C. Overpriced and frighteningly manufactured. I prefer quality to quantity. See all the photos here.
UPDATE! From the Birthday Girl herself (she must defend her brunch, alas):
The thing that stood out to me were the carving stations. The roast beef was pretty damn good. Brooke even went back for beef desert. The warm apple pie with ice cream was also pretty good. The ice cream was a surprise and not that horrible soft-serve dispenser but the real scoop-able kind. I thought the salmon was good and it had all of the bagel accompaniments (capers, eggs, onion etc). The banana bread was awesome. I love carbs! Other than that I do have to agree it wasn’t overly creative, just standard brunch food in large amounts. I give it a B minus (slightly better than your assessment). 😉
Pienza Italian Market
201 Waterfront St
Fort Washington, DC 20745